Zero e-mail at work 'possible but not easy'

Hurdles to cross in replacing e-mail with social media as internal communication tool among staff, given e-mail's indispensability and usefulness when integrated with such social tools.

Eliminating the use of e-mail as an internal communication tool among staff in an organization is not impossible, but it is not easy either. While the adoption of social enterprise and collaboration tools is indubitably on the rise, traditional e-mail's ease of use and how it is already entrenched in work culture can be further enhanced with social media integration.

According to Richard Absalom, analyst for consumer IT at Ovum, the move toward zero internal e-mail will gradually catch on among companies.

He explained that social collaboration platforms such as Yammer, Jive and Chatter are seeing growing adoption, though, for the most part these are currently used as additional tools alongside e-mail.

Hence, for some companies, the "next logical step would be to use these social tools as an e-mail replacement", Absalom said in an e-mail interview.

Looking in the long term, new recruits in an organization, especially those from Generation Y, would also generally be happier, more familiar and, hence, productive using social communication tools as opposed to e-mail, he added.

With such tools, employees can also save time from not having to filter through spam and unimportant e-mail messages, he said. There is also the potential for more productivity and easier collaboration through interaction, recommendation and discovery, he added.

Absalom's observations come amid discussion regarding a "zero e-mail" policy implemented by French IT company, Atos. First implemented in February, CEO Theirry Breton reiterated in late-November his aim to have the company's 74,000 staff in 42 countries worldwide stop using e-mail to communicate internally within the next 18 months.

According to an ABC News report, Breton said 10 percent of the 200 messages Atos staff received per day were useful, while 18 percent were spam. Instead of e-mail, the company's employees will now communicate with each other via collaboration and social media tools such as instant messaging (IM). External parties such as customers and partners, on the other hand, will still receive e-mail from the company.

Six months after it kicked off the initiative, Atos reduced the number of internal email by 20 percent, a company spokesperson said.

Possible without e-mail, but expect challenges
According to Absalom, it would be "possible, but not easy" for companies to completely stop using e-mail to communicate internally and rely solely on social tools instead.

The Ovum analyst explained: "While every employee can be trained on how to use a social platform to communicate…you can't just dismiss the ease and usefulness of e-mail, or how embedded it has become in the collective psyche especially for employees who have used it for years and are set in their ways.

"E-mail is ubiquitous and deeply ingrained in business and this may make it hard to make the benefits of a zero e-mail policy understood."

Gavin Tay, research director at Gartner, concurred, noting that many users could feel frustration because switching would be "painful".

He noted that although social interaction tools such as blogs, wikis and IM are expected to increase in importance over the next few years, many organizations still perceive e-mail to be "by far the most important daily communication and collaboration technology".

Tay added that the significance of e-mail is not expected to decline, at least, over the next few years.

Absalom also cautioned that a zero e-mail policy brings its own set of challenges.

E-mail can be as immediate or non-immediate as required so an employee can organize and prioritize his time. "[But] logging on to a social tool indicates a user is instantly available and can lead to employees being distracted by non-urgent enquiries because they feel they have to respond instantly," he explained.

He also noted that although less e-mail storage would be required, all the text and attachments normally sent via e-mail would still need to be posted and distributed on the social platform on a large scale. Hence, storage still needs to be paid for, he said.

In addition, Absalom highlighted that social applications such as IM may not be as secure as e-mail since they currently do not provide the required levels of security around encryption, location and audit trail.

Lee Smith, CEO of digital platforms at media agency, Omnicom Media Group Asia-Pacific, described the concept of zero e-mail in the office as "interesting" but noted that there were challenges.

"[It's] not as feasible as you might imagine, given the overdeveloped need for formal communications trails for legal and financial reconciliation," Smith said. "[However], interacting in social spaces instead of e-mail is good because it evens the playing field for ideation, and brings static ideas to life with a forum to grow into game-changing initiatives."

Rather than replace e-mail, Tay observed that alternative social collaboration tools and services are increasingly integrated into the "e-mail experience".

The Gartner analyst said: "A large return awaits organizations that can exploit social constructs inside the inbox. E-mail is a rich source of content and contacts, and enabling the user to link messages and contacts to user profiles in public and private social sites creates rich connections.

"Organizations [that adopt] social and e-mail integration are likely to be more nimble and experience higher degrees of user satisfaction and productivity," he concluded.